About a month ago, on a Saturday night, I sat alone in my apartment watching the inconsequential final minutes of a playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers led 24-10 with fewer than four minutes left, and that score—reflecting a fluky touchdown by the Vikings on the prior possession—didn’t represent how clearly the Packers had dominated the game, and how certain they were to win. So why was I, a Washington Redskins fan, still watching? And why was I watching with an intensity to match those who were actually participating in the game?
I had wagered $50 on the game, specifically on the point spread: Packers -8. That is, at nearly even odds (if I lost, I’d lose $50; if I won, I’d win $48), I had bet not only that the Packers would win, but that they would win by eight points or more. So while the outcome of the game wasn’t in doubt, it remained very much in play for me.
And for thousands of others. It’s estimated that Americans bet some $380 billion on sports each year—99 percent of it illegally.1 Two-fifths of all legal sports bets are placed on pro and college football, so we can safely assume that roughly $70 billion is bet on the NFL annually. So for the Vikings-Packers game—one of only 11 postseason matchups, and featuring one of the nation’s most popular teams—it’s likely that tens of millions of dollars hinged on what happened during those three hours in Wisconsin.
I was not watching the same game that the players were playing or the coaches were coaching. The Packers had the ball, and were up two touchdowns. Their best bet was to play conservatively: run the ball, burn as much clock as they could, and punt it away. An unanswered Vikings touchdown, after all, would still constitute a Packers win. But for those of us who had bet on the Packers to beat the spread, an unanswered Vikings touchdown was precisely the difference between a win and a loss. We wanted the Packers to play aggressively for first downs, prolonging the possession so that the Vikings never touched the ball again.
The Packers did convert one third-and-long on a pass (after running it twice), then punted, giving the Vikings the ball with 19 seconds left. As a disinterested fan, I would have rooted for something exciting to happen: a completed Hail Mary, say, or a mesmerizing run by Adrian Peterson. Instead, I practically begged Minnesota to take a knee. They refused, completing a deep pass and spiking the ball to give themselves one last attempt to score a touchdown that would be meaningless to them, but extremely meaningful to me and thousands of others.
The final pass was incomplete. I exhaled. I had won my first bet of the playoffs, and for the moment was $48 richer.
I am a football obsessive. I’m also something of a purist. Not counting fantasy football and March Madness pools,2 I had made maybe four sports bets in my life until last month, when I decided to bet throughout the NFL playoffs. I wanted to see if, as I’d long believed, betting distorts one’s appreciation of the game; if the psychic benefits outweighed the costs, literal or otherwise; and if I could balance one type of entertainment (elite competition) with another (risking money). If I made a few bucks in the process, then all the better.
For professional or inveterate gamblers, winning is the point, and appreciating the game being played is beside it. “If you have an opportunity to make money no matter what, the professional gambler would do that no matter what,” ESPN The Magazine editor Chad Millman, who has a gambling column and wrote a book about Las Vegas oddsmakers, told me. For these pros, the “sharps,” gambling is a living, and therefore a relatively joyless pursuit dedicated to steadily making wise bets and hoping to win around 55 percent of the time over the long run.3
Nothing is as bewitching as money. When it’s at risk, your mind can think of nothing else.
Nothing is as bewitching as money. When it’s at risk, your mind can think of nothing else—and sometimes even when it’s not at risk. Watching the Packers fall to the San Francisco 49ers in their next game, I had trouble reveling in the emergence of Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick—who ran for 181 yards and made some of the greatest throws I have ever seen—such as this beauty—because I had bet on the Packers to win outright.4 And that same weekend, I had trouble appreciating the Atlanta Falcons’s nearly perfect ball control in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks because I had not, despite seriously considering it, bet on them. When Seattle roared back in the second half, I felt relieved but also depressed: There was great football being played, and here I was thinking about money—not even money that I had risked, but rather money that I had not risked.
And money was all I could think about once several long-term bets began to take shape. For instance, before the playoffs began, I bet on the New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl (3:2 odds); separately, I bet on the Falcons to win the Super Bowl (3.75:1 odds). Two rounds in, I also bet that the 49ers would win the Super Bowl. This led to the dull, green-eyeshade math of hedging. Faced with the Patriots’s game against the Ravens, I was too careful with my money not to bet on the Ravens and therefore guarantee myself some return.
In doing so, I sapped football of much of its entertainment value. By betting in the first place, I had given up the easy pleasure of being a carefree spectator. Now, with my web of contradictory bets, even the thrill of risking money was gone. The game had become very much beside the point.
All gambling stories are cautionary tales.5 Usually, the gambler ends up losing money, as virtually all gamblers do in the long run; not infrequently, the gambler has found gambling a little too thrilling, even addictive—it has led him to forsake obligations, alienate loved ones, and end up in the figurative (and occasionally literal) gutter.
To mess with football while the game is at its best feels worse than merely stupid. It feels cosmically wrong.
I don’t mean to downplay the real-life wages of gambling—not for nothing is there a GA—when I say that my cautionary tale is much milder. For one thing, I’m going to come out ahead: I am currently up $80, and my outstanding bets do not leave me at risk of losing even that much. More importantly, despite sometimes regretting a bet that was or was not made, at no point have I felt compelled to gamble. But what I’ve learned about gambling has moral implications nonetheless. Our pastimes, whatever they may be, should be sacrosanct. They are part of why we go to work, save money, and take time for ourselves. Football is an important pastime for me. To mess with it while the game is at its best, throughout the playoffs, feels worse than merely stupid. It feels cosmically wrong.
And yet, it doesn’t feel so wrong to bet on the Super Bowl, as many people do in living rooms and offices around the country. Unless your team has made it, the game itself can feel like a distraction from the larger event even if you haven’t bet on it. The media circus is too big, and one rarely feels that the game, nail-biter or otherwise, showcases the season’s best football. Even the betting is bloated, with the proliferation of prop bets6: wagers you can make on how just about every player will perform, and who will win Most Valuable Player, and whether the 49ers will score more points against the Ravens than Kobe Bryant will against the Detroit Pistons (seriously). The Las Vegas Hilton is offering more than 400 props for this one game.
I’ve made some prop bets on Sunday’s game, at $10 apiece. That Ravens fullback Vonta Leach will score the first touchdown of the game (25:1). That there will be zero touchdowns in the first half (8:1). That Beyonce’s hair will be “curly/crimped” rather than straight at the beginning of the halftime show (even money).7 I would gladly make these bets in future years—which is to say, my experiment with gambling has perhaps become a casual pastime as far as the Super Bowl is concerned.
And I have hedged again. Recall that I had already bet $100 that the Niners would win the Super Bowl outright, which, at 3:2 odds, would pay out $150. So last week, I placed an additional $120 bet on the Ravens to beat the spread (+4 at the time). In doing so, I have attained the gambler’s sweet spot, “the middle”: It’s impossible for me to lose both bets, and yet I could—if the Niners beat the Ravens by three points or less—win both. That would be pretty sweet, but it wouldn’t feel very sporting. Actual NFL games, after all, have no middle. Come Monday morning, one team will be the Super Bowl champion, and one will be the loser.
Betting is legal for adults 21 and over in Nevada—plus a few other states, under certain circumstances—and via offshore bookmakers, as I was doing.
In both instances, the gambling component—winning the pot—is secondary to the glory of defeating friends or coworkers.
College basketball is best suited for this strategy, in part because of the sheer number of match-ups.
That is, I bet on them to win, period.
With the exception, perhaps, of stories about certain professional poker players.
The original big prop bet, according to Millman, was created for the 1986 Super Bowl: Would the Bears' colorful rookie defensive tackle, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, score a touchdown, as he had three times that season? The odds began at 40:1 but fell to 2:1. When Perry did score, it was a bigger blow to the casinos than to the Patriots, who were already down 37-3. “One bookmaker said he lost 40 grand on that one prop,” Millman said.
For this last bet, I consulted my colleague Noreen Malone, who explained, “Big event, big hair. She’s going to want to draw as much attention to herself as possible. And she just prefers curly hair!”